17 January 2011

Tucson through foreign eyes

Kathleen Parker's latest column alerts me to an interesting exchange that took place during a White House press conference last Thursday. The Tucson amoklauf was still the topic of the moment, the President having just returned from the Univ. of Arizona pep rally that passed for a "memorial service" the previous evening. The press secretary took a question from Andrei Sitov, the correspondent for ITAR-Tass, a Russian news agency.

This is America the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. And many people outside would also say the quote-unquote 'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also America. How do you respond to it?


Sitov went on, suggesting that the amoklauf as a phenomenon represented "the reverse side of freedom," preventable only through "restrictions" and "a bigger role for the government." The press secretary responded sharply in what Parker deems possibly his "best moment" in his job. She quotes him:

There is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American.


Parker certainly isn't congratulating the secretary on his eloquence. The official seems to have meant that neither the Constitution nor the statutes of American law confer a right on anyone to perpetrate an amoklauf. Therefore, presumably, the Tucson atrocity shouldn't be seen as a consequence of American freedom. Sitov seems to see things differently. From his Russian perspective (one admittedly not exactly congenial to individual liberty) Tucson most likely looks like a consequence of, or as he told another reporter, the cost a country pays for freedom from preventative measures that elsewhere might have kept a gun out of the shooter's hand.

American opinionators like Parker were quick to make ad nationem attacks on Sitov. Since ITAR-Tass is a "state-run" agency, Sitov must be a bootlicking lackey of Putin and Medvedev if not a coward for asking an American a question he'd dare not ask a Russian official. Alleged state intimidation of more independent Russian journalists -- and the allegations probably have some truth behind them -- presumably disqualify Russians, and especially state employees, from casting aspersions on American liberty. Parker takes the attack to an ad hominem level, suggesting that Sitov "found some perverse release in speaking out against the freedoms he was enjoying in a place he obviously felt safe."

Can the opinions of the wider anglophone world, where "freedom" is a general cultural birthright, be as easily dismissed? Here's a short summary of questioning similar to Sitov's from Australia, England and New Zealand. With the focus on American gun culture, the question remains whether freedom from prevention makes violence more likely and bloody. Are these English-speaking editorialists implicitly questioning the First as well as the Second Amendment, as Americans seem to think Sitov was doing? Was Sitov even doing that? Parker thinks so, writing that he had described the amoklauf as "just an extension of American free expression." It depends on what the Russian meant by the "'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way." Because he's a Russian and a presumed hireling of the government, he's presumed also to be contemptuous toward free expression in general, and not just gun ownership. If America is his beat, however, Sitov is probably aware of the linkage between gun ownership and liberty in many minds here, the presumption that the First Amendment depends on the Second. We shouldn't rule out that he had a broader cultural critique in mind, just as Americans shouldn't rule out that their culture is open to question from outside perspectives. Is the idealized American refusal to defer to politicians, not to mention the related, Supreme Court-endorsed belief that individual rights are prior to the Constitution, a guarantee of a violent society? On a day devoted to non-violence, it's a question worth asking. How free are we, after all, if we can't?

2 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

There is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day.

Really? Tell that to the native Americans who died by the thousands at the hands of "Americans". Tell that to the Africans who were stolen from their homes and families, brought across an ocean and forced to labor to increase the value and productivity of a lazy white upperclass. This country was built on blood and violence.

Samuel Wilson said...

So was every other country, so that alone doesn't get to the question of whether the U.S. is exceptionally violent or the question of whether that has anything to do with our supposedly exceptional attachment to individual liberty.